Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why is an irresponsible dramatisation of teenage suicide

Suicide is a difficult topic to tackle without being sensationalist or reductive. But 13 Reasons Why manages to fall into both of these categories at once.

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“Everyone is just so nice until they drive you to kill yourself” claims Clay Jenson, the 17 year-old protagonist of 13 Reasons Why, Netflix’s new original teen drama. The adaptation of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel Thirteen Reasons Why follows a group of 12 high school students as they piece together a story as it is described on a series of cassette tapes left for them their classmate Hannah Baker, who has died by suicide.

On the tapes, she recalls instances of sexual harassment, slut-shaming, rumours and rape that she alleges ultimately caused her to take her life, each attributable to one of the classmates that her tapes are delivered to. Executive produced by the actress and singer Selena Gomez, the small-screen adaptation follows the reactions to the unravelling mystery of Hannah’s death.

When I read Jay Asher’s novel as a young teen, I remember being struck by its truthful portrayal of teenage insecurity and hostile school environments. I was genuinely excited when I heard that it was being adapted for Netflix. An intelligent, sophisticated teen show has been long overdue, and Asher’s novel seemed like the perfect starting point. Disappointingly, writer Brian Yorkey’s adaptation of 13 Reasons Why falls far short of its ambitions.

Most obviously, the show is way too long. Jay Asher’s 288 pages have been stretched into 13 hours of television. The result is a TV series that falls short of encouraging the same empathy and understanding as the book does. There is a cruel irony in the fact that all 13 episodes are released at once, leaving viewers with a choice – to slowly work our way through the tapes, like Clay, or to binge on all 13 episodes in one night like his peers. Although the creators’ decision to widen the novel’s psychological focus on a dual narrative between Hannah and Clay is a sound one, it has been stretched so thin that it becomes flimsy and transparent.

Suicide is a difficult topic to tackle without being sensationalist or reductive. But 13 Reasons Why manages to fall into both of these categories at once, depicting Hannah’s suicide as a means of exposing  the actions of her peers and making them feel guilty rather than exploring the nuances of mental illness.  Of course, bullying can be a contributing factor towards suicidal thoughts and behaviour, but it is wrong to portray it as a direct cause – a lazy and unforgivable simplification of the infinitely more complex nature of mental illness. 13 Reasons attempts to take on suicide without so much as a token mention of the word “depression”.

The suicide scene itself is almost unbearably difficult to watch. To its credit, it contains no euphemistic photo montages or sad indie ballads, but the realism of the scene feels uncomfortably close to a how-to guide to suicide. It teeters dangerously on the edge of emotional torture porn, a territory already frequented at an alarming rate by the very teenagers that the show is desperate to help. The show is right to be trying to provide teenagers with a lesson in compassion and sensitivity, but watching Hannah Baker cut her wrists in High Definition isn’t doing anything for youth suicide prevention.

The show’s realism does pay off considerably in other areas. Its commitment to diversity is particularly impressive, with a representative cast that successfully avoids falling prey to the racialised stereotypes so often seen on TV. The Asian characters are not helicopter-parented nerds, and the black characters are not “sassy” token friends. Black actors Alosha Boe and Ajiona Alexus play two of the most popular cheerleaders in the school, whilst Steven Silver plays student honour council president Marcus. South East Asian actor Michele Ang plays Courtney Crimson, whose plot line revolves around her anxiety that revealing her own sexuality will cause her two fathers to experience more homophobic abuse, and basketball star Zach Dempsey, played by Chinese-Malaysian actor Ross Butler, is grilled by his mother not about his grades, but about why he isn’t yet captain of the basketball team.

For all its faults in structure and execution, 13 Reasons Why does provide an insight into the cultural psyche and adolescent tensions of the 21st century American teen. It’s a shame that this is trivialised by its irresponsible mishandling of its primary concern. 

If you've been affected by any of the issues addressed in this piece you can call the Samaritans on the free helpline 116 123.

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Now listen to a discussion of 13 Reasons Why on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY: